One of my best friends in seventh grade was Jeremiah Washington. His family moved to our small town the summer before and although I wasn't too sure of his loony antics I soon warmed up because of one thing: he knew how to make me laugh. Every day at lunch we'd sit together and in between bites of PB&J I'd watch him talk with his hands. "What do you think of that?" "I think it's stupid." "What, stupid like this school?" "You didn't say that." "Oh yes I did, you fool." People would make fun of him, call him crazy, because he talked with his hands. To me, he was a puppeteer without the puppet. He didn't care. He kept right on doing it. I really liked that about Jeremiah. His skin was a double fudge brownie, and his hair short and tight against his head. His smile was big and could eclipse those times when I thought he might be sad. Jeremiah was beautiful, and a genius, it's a fact.
While traversing up our school's lamented, Gothic stairwell to the second floor one day, I heard the sound of angry voices. They were voices I knew. The seventh grade boys stood in a huddle and repeatedly mentioned Jeremiah's name. "I'm going to beat that kid up. I can't stand him." Some made excuses, such as, he was hyper, didn't walk fast enough, walked too fast, he was too skinny, kinda crazy, kinda stupid. But none of them said what they really meant. I ascended that last step and broke through the group. The bell rang. My locker stuck as I yanked at it and rattled when I slammed it. My eyes stung.
A few weeks later, Jeremiah and his family moved away. Someone said, back to Kansas City. No one had to tell me why. My lunches were slow and filled with too much quiet. I missed my friend. I missed the whip of his hands, the sarcasm, the smile.
That next summer I spent a few weeks at my cousin's house in an affluent area just outside of the city. I was asked to stay because my Aunt knew I'd keep her little girl occupied during housework and mid-afternoon trips to the ladies' club. She dropped us off at the library, the pool, the indoor skating rink, the movies—everywhere. It was the kind of life inaccessible to my lower middle-class family, so I was okay with being the free babysitter even if my self-pride took a shrapnel sting of shame. One morning, Aunt Kathleen took us along while shopping for clean linen at a local department store. While she shopped, we explored. There were fabrics: white cotton, blue cotton, sheets and pillowcases, towels so thick your hand left a dent, and little fancy soaps shaped in roses. Since we were the only ones there, we allowed ourselves to run freely across the tiled floors and through the labyrinth rows of merchandise. When another family came in, we were told to quiet down and behave. Instantly, I recognized Jeremiah. He was there with his mother and younger siblings. Neither of us spoke, we weaved through the linens, he and I, our eyes meeting, recognizing. I saw his cocoa face disappear under the balloon of an ecru linen as he lifted it and ducked. We did this numerous times, sometimes him, sometimes me, until his mother said it was time to go. Jeremiah stood, shrugged it off. "Hey, don't I know you?" Without answering, I watched him slowly join his family and leave.
Whenever I hear that song Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog, I think of him. It doesn't really fit, but I like it anyway.